“The universal (catholic) community is not just one among many. Bestowed on us by God, freely given, it is the only one that is unrestricted in scope.”
What standpoint is our new review to adopt to scan the turmoil and confusion of battling ideologies and the clash of philosophies of life at the present day? What vantage point is there from which to flash its guiding signals? During its long history, the community that takes its name from Jesus the Christ time and time again has had to reflect and reconsider the position it occupies between God and the world. Yet its own nature entails that whatever concept it uses to define itself must always remain open and dynamic. In the first centuries its consciousness endured the tension of almost contradictory themes. The Christians were indeed conscious of themselves as forming a little group in the face of the darkness of the hostile world around them, a community (koinonia, communio) of love, founded and nourished by God’s love manifested and bestowed in Christ. Nevertheless that community also knew itself from the first (already in Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrians, 8, 2) to be “catholic,” that is, universal, and therefore normative for the whole world. What a paradox! It was only endurable in a “naive” outlook of faith, conscious that the wind of the Holy Spirit was driving the little vessel forward (cf. Acts of the Apostles), that despite all persecution the teaching was spreading in a wonderful way, that finally the emperor himself was converted, which opened up the prospect of a correspondence in principle between the Christian community and the world, even if the full penetration of the world by the Christian leaven were to remain a problematic task which could never be completed. In the Middle Ages the tension slackened, because the boundaries of Empire and Church came to coincide and the two together formed a single Christendom. Spirit and structure matched in principle, the inevitable discrepancy providing occasion enough for ever new efforts at reform. As a consequence, the deeper problems concerning the Christian empire in relation to the heathen world surging on its borders threatened to fade entirely from the mind. Hence the well-known faulty developments in the transition to modern times, the fatal coupling of power colonialism and the missions, the Counter-Reformation emphasis on the (hierarchicalinstitutional) formal structure of the Catholic Christian community at a time when the medieval unity of Empire and Church was finally shattered. The Protestant communities, however, were fundamentally in no better position, as missionary practice shows, because they adopted once more and sharpened the early Christian dualism of Church and world, and established a static dichotomy between elect (predestined) and reprobate (cf. also the dualism of death-bringing Law and vivifying Gospel). The garments were too tight and burst at the seams. The consciousness of being “catholic,” that is, universal, was a continual stimulus to the best minds to engage in a concrete and living dialogue with all that was externally separated, in order progressively to overcome the contradiction between “catholicity” and particular denomination (“Roman” or otherwise). When, as a result of the Enlightenment and the Idealist philosophy, the Protestant and Jansenist idea of predestination was superseded, Protestants had the inverse problem of justifying anything along the lines of an organized Church, on the basis of an abstract, general concept of the Kingdom of God.
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